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Published in Print: June 24, 1998, as For Better or Worse, Girls Catching Up to Boys

For Better or Worse, Girls Catching Up to Boys

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Nearly two decades after educators and other experts began noting that girls lagged behind boys on science and math tests, a report shows that girls have virtually caught up to boys in those subjects.

That's the good news. The bad news is that girls have virtually caught up to boys in other ways, too. They are smoking, drinking, and using drugs as often as their male counterparts, researchers say.

The report published last week by the National Council for Research on Women, a New York City-based consortium of 77 research centers, suggests that, for better or worse, girls are breaking free of gender stereotypes.

For More Information

"The Girls Report: What We Know and Need To Know About Growing Up Female'' contains recommendations, a resource list, and a bibliography.

Copies are available for $20 each plus $3.50 for postage and handling from the National Council for Research on Women, Publications Department GRI, 11 Hanover Square, 20th Floor, New York, NY 10005; (212) 785-7335.

At the same time, it says, some of the same problems that have long faced young girls have not disappeared. Although they are less likely than boys to commit suicide, for example, adolescent girls are twice as likely to be depressed. And they continue to be disproportionately the victims of rape, sexual abuse, and sexual harassment.

Recent Efforts Gauged

"A few policies are beginning to make a difference, but the number of areas that still need attention also suggest that we have a lot more work to do," said Linda G. Basch, the council's executive director.

"The Girls Report: What We Know and Need to Know About Growing Up Female" is based on a review of 200 studies, most of which were conducted in the past five years, and was written by Linda Phillips, a professor of psychology and gender studies at the New School for Social Research in New York City. Some of the studies showed, for example, that in 1996, girls performed just as well as boys in math and science on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a congressionally mandated test given to nationally representative groups of students. Slight differences remained among top-achieving students in science, where 12th grade boys continued to outperform their female classmates.

Girls, however, tend to like math less than boys, and they are more likely to attribute their difficulties in math to personal inability. When boys have difficulties in math, they are more likely to blame the subject matter.

But the overall academic picture suggests that "girls appear to be doing considerably better than popular discussions would suggest," the report says.

The change has come about in part, Ms. Basch said, because of new programs and efforts aimed at increasing girls' participation in science and math.

In athletics, girls are participating in a wider range of sports and exercise than ever but have yet to catch up to boys; 37 percent of all high school athletes are girls, and the percentage of sophomore girls who take part in sports actually decreased, from 46 percent in 1980 to 41 percent a decade later.

Revisiting Self-Esteem

Some of the research cited in the report also counters the perception, made popular through studies by Harvard University researcher Carol Gilligan and others, that girls undergo a loss of self-esteem in adolescence. ("Their Own Voices," May 13, 1998.)

Black girls, in particular, seem to suffer no such loss. And other studies suggest that whether or not girls feel free to express their opinions depends in part on whom they're with and whether they expect their views to be supported, rather than on any lack of self-confidence.

"While some girls may, indeed, go underground in adolescence, they also resist, speak out, and struggle to create the terms of their development," the report says.

As for the report's bad news--the increases in the percentages of girls who smoke, drink, and use drugs--some experts said the findings are not surprising.

"It's an extension of the fact that, in a culture that places value on things that men and boys do, it's understandable that more girls want to do things that boys do than boys want to do things that girls do," said Susan McGee Bailey, the executive director of the Wellesley Centers for Research on Women in Wellesley, Mass.

"We need to be able to say, 'Wait, girls have strengths, and maybe boys should learn from girls, too,'" Ms. Bailey said.

Girls, however, also tend to smoke cigarettes in an effort to control their weight. Thirty-four percent of adolescent girls consider themselves overweight, compared with 22 percent of boys, according to one survey cited in the report.

At a time when the movement to support girls' development is experiencing a backlash, the report already is being criticized for its narrow focus on girls.

Judith S. Kleinfeld, a University of Alaska psychology professor, praised the report for pointing out data refuting the idea that girls are struggling in school.

But, she added, "this report is continuing this obsession for the problems of girls and ignoring the problems of boys."

Ms. Kleinfeld, the author of a report due out this week that attempts to debunk the notion that schools shortchange girls, points out that girls far outperform boys on national reading tests.

And the gap that separates boys from girls in that subject is three times larger than it is for science.

In addition, girls get better grades than boys in school, drop out less frequently, and are referred to special education less often, she said.

But girls, countered Ms. Basch, "have too long been neglected in research and policy debates and in their communities, so I don't think we can stop looking at them now--particularly when we see that some of the policies and programs are working."

Vol. 17, Issue 41, Page 5

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